John Calvin, French Protestant Reformer

John Calvin: The Most Influential Huguenot Theologian In History

Few people would argue that John Calvin is one of the most important – if not the most important – theologians of (Reformed Theology) of modern times. Since the 1500s, Calvin had a huge impact on the Protestant church and many would rank him among the most influential ministers of the Word from France and within the early American colonies centuries later. Calvin was an excellent teacher, Pastor, masterful theologian, reformer, and ecclesiastical statesman. He interpreted scripture in a way that challenged corrupt, traditional Catholic ideas and brought light to various issues that would ultimately lead to the Reformed Church movement. Through his brilliant meditations on Christian doctrine, known simply as Calvinism by many, he championed the teachings of the Reformation so famously introduced by men such as Martin Luther, Zwingli, and Bucer.

In contrast to his predecessor Martin Luther, Calvin was well-regarded for his unemotional, intellectual approach to faith. While Luther made his case popular with a passionate approach, Calvin had a much more logical and structured manner about him. His teachings would lay the groundwork for the further growth of Protestant theology in Europe and later in the colonies of the Americas.

Early Life And Education

John Calvin was born on the tenth of July, 1509 in the French city of Noyon, approximately sixty miles north of Paris. His parents were Gerard and Jeanne. His father, Gerard, was a notary for the Roman Catholic bishop in the local diocese meaning the family was in the professional class. Calvin was destined to become a priest and so was sent to the University of Paris, one of the leading educational institutes in Europe at the time. Aged just fourteen, he began to study theology, humanism, and the principles of the Renaissance. He graduated in 1528 with a master’s degree, leaving the University of Paris as a very well-educated young man.

After graduating from the University of Paris, his father had a major conflict with the bishop of Noyon, whom he had been working for. Falling out with the church, he pushed his son to study law at both the University of Orléans and Bourges. Calvin would also go on to study Greek, Hebrew, and Latin and work on his critical thinking and debating skills, which would serve him well later in life. Also, the Enlightenment movement in France began to significantly impact Calvin’s life. There was a new and growing movement among intellectuals of that era, “Ad Fontes,” meaning “Back To The Sources”. This idea was prompted by the desire to study the Scriptures and other ancient works, in the original languages and not through the corrupt lens of the Catholic Church or other poorly translated materials.

John Calvin’s Conversion to Christ

During his time as a student in New Orléans, Calvin was introduced to Martin Luther’s writings. At the time, these writings were discussed at length and debated in academic circles. After being exposed to these writings, Calvin was converted to Christ. He wrote about his conversion in the preface to his Commentary on the Book of Psalms, written in 1557, stating, “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor.”

Fleeing Paris

In November of 1533, John Calvin was forced to flee Paris so that he would not be arrested after his friend Nicolas Cop, rector of the University of Paris, gave the opening address for the University’s winter term. He encouraged reformation, basing his arguments on the New Testament, a very bold move for the time. His views were seen as “Luther-like” and it was believed that Calvin worked with Cop as a version of the address was discovered in Calvin’s handwriting. To avoid arrest, he moved to an estate operated by a man named Louis de Tillet, who believed in the idea of reformation. Here Calvin read the Bible and other writings, especially those of Augustine, and began mastering his skills as a theologian.

Seeking Solitude

Aged just twenty-five, Calvin moved to Basel, Switzerland, a safe haven for Protestants so he could study alone and without distraction. Here we would write his masterpiece, the “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” where he outlined the fundamentals of the Protestant faith and put forth strong arguments for reformation. He publish this book aged twenty-six, which many people would consider the most important book to be written during the Reformation.

Two years later, Calvin moved to Strasbourg, Germany to study in solitude even further. However, due to a conflict between French King Francis I and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria, he was unable to travel the most direct route possible. Instead, he had no choice but to detour through Geneva, where he was due to spend just one night.

A Theologian In Exile

When he arrived in Geneva, Calvin was instantly recognized as the author of “Institutes of the Christian Religion”. Calvin was brought to meet William Farel; a man who had championed the Protestant movement in Geneva for more than ten years. Around this time, Geneva had voted to leave to Roman Catholic Church and was going to establish itself as a Reformation city but Farel needed a teacher who could explain the ideas behind the reformation clearly. He asked Calvin to take the position and with a little persuasion, he accepted, beginning his tenure as a lecturer in Geneva, leading to him becoming a pastor.

Together with Farel, they began to implement a number of different reforms in an effort to align the life and practice of the church with what was outlined in the scripture. However, some of their reforms, such as refusing communion to well-known Geneva citizens, who were known to be living in open sin, resulted in both Calvin and Farel having to leave Geneva and seek exile in Strasbourg, where Calvin had been planning to go two years earlier.

John Calvin Influential Works and Ministry in Exile

In Strasbourg, John Calvin wanted to live a quiet life away from the public eye but Martin Bucer, the chief reformer of the city, insisted that Calvin should continue to act in the public eye. Calvin accepted reluctantly and ended up becoming the pastor to five hundred Huguenot refugees. During his time in exile, he also wrote “Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans” as well as expanding on his earlier work “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” which many people class as the greatest apologetic for the reformation; “A Reply to Sadoleto”.
Return To Geneva

While in Strasbourg, Calvin also married Idelette de Bure and after spending three years in the city, leaders in Geneva contacted him to return as their Pastor. The political and religious situation in Geneva had gone downhill since Calvin’s departure. Initially, he had no intention of returning to Geneva, writing o Farel, stating, “Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross, on which one had to perish daily a thousand times over.” However, despite the dangers that would possibly await him in Geneva, Calvin changed his mind in the end and returned to the Swiss city he had previously been forced to leave.

Return to Geneva

In his very first sermon in Geneva, after being gone for three and half years, Calvin picked up right where he had left off, continuing with the next verse of scripture immediately after the one he had been covering before being forced into exile. This was seen as a bold statement by Calvin, highlighting his commitment to verse-by-verse preaching in his ministry. His return to Geneva was, at first, with a lot of resistance. After a difficult four years, he was finally accepted by Geneva’s leaders, allowing him to establish the Geneva Academy in 1559. In the same year, he published the fifth and final version of the “Institutes of the Christian Religion”.The Geneva Bible was released the following year, gaining acclaim as one of the most historically important translations of the Bible into English. It was also one of the first translations to include extensive commentary and theological notes.

The Continued Growth Of The Reformation Movement And Calvin’s Death

Sending French-speaking pastors, that had trained under him, Calvin sought to spread protestant teachings throughout the French-speaking provinces of Europe. More than thirteen hundred of Calvin’s missionaries would eventually go to France, establishing more than one hundred underground churches. Two years later, the number of churches had expanded to more than two thousand, with a reported three million members. Geneva missionaries also established churches in other European countries such as Poland, Hungary, Scotland, England, the Netherlands, and Brazil.

John Calvin preached for the final time at the pulpit of St. Peter’s Cathedral on the 6th of February 1564. Soon after, he became seriously ill and by April, it was clear that he wasn’t going to pull through. On April 28, Calvin gathered his ministers together and warned them that the reformation was only beginning, saying, “You will have troubles when God shall have called me away… But take courage and fortify yourselves, for God will make use of this church and will maintain it, and assures you that He will protect it.”

Calvin finally passed away on the 27th of May 1564, held by his successor, “Theodore Beza”. In his dying words, he quoted the bible “How long, O Lord?”, quoting the Bible which he had preached for so many years. By his own request, John Calvin was buried at a common cemetery in an unmarked grave, as a humble servant of God.